Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Oil, Isreal and metanarratives

UPDATE: The article that I was riffing off of was not published this week. It was published four years ago. I apologize for the error, although I stand by my narrative analysis and consent of the locals analysis. Thanks for the info JawaReport.

The battle against Al-Quaeda and Islamic fundamentalist violent extremism is a war of ideas and competing meta narratives. The Al-Queada narrative that they are trying to sell to the vast majority of the Arab Muslim population is that the United States is an oppressive power that supports oppressive local regimes in order to support Israel and gain access to the region's natural resources. To beat this narrative the United States needs to first offer a different narrative and then don't do stupid things which feeds into this narrative as filtered through the perception biases of the target population.

We also know that many Iraqis believe that the United States has invaded Iraq for its oil and has done nothing to stabilize the country because of its oil and to reduce the strategic threat for Israel. This belief does not have to be valid to be important. It just has to be widespread and deeply held.

So when I read this article in Haaretz this morning, I had a d'oh moment.

The United States has asked Israel to check the possibility of pumping oil from Iraq to the oil refineries in Haifa. The request came in a telegram last week from a senior Pentagon official to a top Foreign Ministry official in Jerusalem.

The Prime Minister's Office, which views the pipeline to Haifa as a "bonus" the U.S. could give to Israel in return for its unequivocal support for the American-led campaign in Iraq, had asked the Americans for the official telegram.

The new pipeline would take oil from the Kirkuk area, where some 40 percent of Iraqi oil is produced, and transport it via Mosul, and then across Jordan to Israel....

Iraqi oil is now being transported via Turkey to a small Mediterranean port near the Syrian border. The transit fee collected by Turkey is an important source of revenue for the country. This line has been damaged by sabotage twice in recent weeks and is presently out of service.

Okay, this is just stupid, and it is almost as stupid as the original 'new' Iraqi flag design was stupid. That flag looked too much like the Israeli flag and was interpreted as a swipe at the Iraqi identity as an Islamic nation and as an Arab nation. Everyone collectively laughed at it while also muttering that it proved that this entire invasion was for the benefit of Israel. Perceptions matter, and in this case, the perception was strong.

Sending Iraqi oil to Haifa will have the same perception --- the United States is stealing Iraqi recourses to give to Israel. It does not matter if the transit fees are a couple of pennies less per barrel than the Ceyhan route; it does not matter that diversifying the market of Iraqi oil should marginally increase its value and network resiliency.

It just looks bad for marginal benefit. And it will not work.

The Haaretz article identifies why there is a problem with this entire scheme. Oil pipelines that work rely on the consent of the local people to not blow the thing up on a regular basis. The Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline is routinely damaged and has been shut down for most of the past three years. And that pipeline spends a significant chunk of its time in Kurdish controlled areas where the incentive to keep it working is reasonably high. The Kirkuk-Mosul-Haifa pipeline has to go through massive areas of the Sunni Arab heartlands. And we know this region has a particularly high expertise in blowing pipelines up.

So why is this idea being floated when it is both impractical and extremely costly in the battle of narratives? The first and most benign idea is a technocratic wonk figured that diversifying the pipeline network would lead to marginal efficiency gains and forgot to look at reality.

The other reasonable alternative is that someone is looking for ways to apply economic pressure to Turkey and also give the Kurds a signal that they will not be allowed to be landlocked and held hostage economically. The problem with this idea is that pipeline fees from a fully working Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline are small change to the Turkish economy. Losing them will suck for a city and its port but have next to no impact on the national economy. The other problem is the problem of Sunni Arabs being skilled at blowing up pipelines to create an economic blockade of Kurdistan. They can already do it on a tougher pipeline, so I expect it can also be done to a line on their home turf.

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